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Officials blame climate change as Vanuatu picks up the pieces after ‘monster’ storm

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Two days after the vicious Cyclone Pam lashed the tiny island country of Vanuatu, residents are beginning the brutal business of accounting for its causes and costs.

In Port Vila, the capital, homes were flattened like so many cardboard boxes. Bridges collapsed and power lines are down, possibly for days or even weeks.

“It looks like the town center has been hit by a bomb,” one aid worker told the Australian Broadcasting Corp.

Viewed from above, the once lush, green group of islands is now a mess of muddy brown: “It doesn’t look like the Vanuatu I remember,” Hanna Butler, a spokeswoman for the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, said in a phone interview after flying in on Monday.

And from the islands to the south, home to more than 30,000 people, there is only silence. Lines of communication from those areas have been severed since the storm made landfall Friday night. On a Facebook page set up to connect residents with missing loved ones, pictures of smiling people are accompanied by pleas for help in finding them.

Aid workers reach Vanuatu to scenes of devastation after Cyclone Pam hit the Pacific island nation over the weekend. (Video: Reuters)

As of early Monday morning, six people were confirmed dead and 90 percent of homes reported damaged because of the catastrophic Category 5 storm — but those numbers came only from Port Vila. Aid workers, who first reached the country on Sunday said it will take weeks to account for the storm’s devastation and that the final death toll will likely be much higher.

“It’s becoming increasingly clear that we are now dealing with worse than the worst case scenario in Vanuatu,” Oxfam Executive Director Helen Szoke said in a statement on Sunday. “We hold grave fears for the people on these outer and remote islands.”

[Tropical cyclone slams into Vanuatu, leaving death and destruction in its wake]

In an emotional interview with the Associated Press on Monday, Vanuatu President Baldwin Lonsdale called the storm a “monster.”

“It’s a setback for the government and for the people of Vanuatu,” he said. “After all the development that has taken place, all this development has been wiped out.”

Lonsdale spoke from Sendai, Japan, where he’d been attending a United Nations conference on disaster risk reduction when the cyclone hit. The news of the storm cast the significance of the meeting into sharp relief.

“This conference is about disaster risk reduction. What is happening in Vanuatu is the reality,” he said, adding: “Climate change is contributing to the disasters in Vanuatu.”

Vanuatu President Baldwin Lonsdale said Cyclone Pam has threatened the country's future and appealed for help for the ravaged island-nation. (Video: Reuters)

Lonsdale’s statements were echoed by Anote Tong, president of nearby Kiribati, also affected by the storm.

“For leaders of low-lying island atolls, the hazards of global warming affect our people in different ways, and it is a catastrophe that impinges on our rights … and our survival into the future,” he said in a speech at the United Nations conference on Sunday. “There will be a time when the waters will not recede.”

[Tropical Cyclone Pam thrashes Vanuatu with direct hit as a Category 5]

This is a disaster many saw coming. Earlier this month, Port Vila was named the city most exposed to natural disasters by risk analysis company Verisk Maplecroft. Eight of the other top 10 most-threatened cities were in the Philippines, another nation made up of mostly sea-level islands. Leaders of Pacific island nations have repeatedly called for action on climate change in recent years, attributing the rising sea levels and intensified storms that threaten their countries to global warming.

In addition, many homes in Vanuatu — a nation of more than 260,000 people spread over 65 islands — are built with flimsy materials vulnerable to storms and floods, according to UNICEF.

Butler, the Red Cross representative, spoke with a man in Port Vila who was working to replace the corrugated roof on his home. His building was one of the few among his neighbors’ homes that was made of concrete. When the surrounding wooden houses collapsed, about 30 people sought refuge with him.

“The wind outside was screaming, and the children inside were screaming,” he told Butler.

Environmental law researcher Margaretha Wewerinke moved to Port Vila just last Monday to take up a lectureship at the University of South Pacific. She waited out the storm with two other families in the concrete garage of the lodge where she had been staying.

“The storm itself sounded as if it we had reached the end of the world: There was the thundering noise of the wind and water flying around; very loud whistle-like noises probably caused by wind creeping through windows; and every now and then the terrifying noise of some part of a roof or tree going down,” she told The Washington Post in an e-mail.

When the wind and rain receded Saturday morning, Wewerinke emerged to a changed city — what once were houses are now piles of rubble, and where she once saw lush vegetation she now has an unobscured view of a nearby lagoon.

Within hours, residents were checking on their neighbors and starting to rebuild. Butler says the recovery effort in Port Vila was well underway when aid groups arrived — running water is now restored, and much of the debris has been piled along roadsides for removal.

Wewerinke, who studies the relationship between climate change and human rights and moved to Vanuatu because of its relevance to her work, had no idea she would experience the phenomenon directly so soon after her arrival. She said she has no doubt that global warming contributed to Cyclone Pam’s intensity.

“Vanuatu is, like most other small island developing states, a canary in the coal mine when it comes to the dangerousness of climate change,” she wrote.

Initially forecast to track 100 miles east of Efate, Vanuatu’s main island where Port Vila is located, the storm instead bore down on the vulnerable city. Sustained wind speeds reached 165 miles per hour, powerful enough to “blow away” whole villages, World Vision emergency response officer Chloe Morrison told the Sydney Morning Herald.

In a phone interview from the U.N. conference in Sendai, U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs spokeswoman Orla Fagan said Cyclone Pam was one of the worst Pacific storms in memory.

“There is no comparing it,” she said.

Several U.N. aid teams arrived in Vanuatu on Monday, she said. Their priority will be providing food, water and shelter to affected residents and working to prevent the outbreak of water-borne diseases. The United Nations, Oxfam, the Red Cross and other aid agencies issued appeals for donations to help with the relief effort.